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The Weekly Political Spin: From work events and Jurassic Park, to ‘educational apartheid’ and George Useless

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Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson

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Boris Johnson

From work events and Jurassic Park, to ‘educational apartheid’ and George Useless, Andrew Madden takes a closer look at some of the more unusual things in the Assembly and further afield this week.

MONDAY

Monday saw Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie hit out at TUV leader Jim Allister over an written Assembly question he tabled regarding Covid testing.

Mr Allister, who has a penchant for being divisive, to say the least, asked the Health Minister “what precautions are in place to prevent citizens of the Republic of Ireland from availing of free Covid-19 testing kits and facilities in Northern Ireland”, also querying “how extensive this has been in border areas”.

The question came amid reports of pharmacies in border areas turning away customers from the Republic looking to get lateral flow tests, as here they are provided free on the NHS, while you have to pay for them in the South.

Mr Beattie branded Mr Allister’s 2unfortunately divisive", and said he "simply cannot understand this nonsense".

He tweeted: "I’d happily share with my neighbour, the same neighbour who sent ambulances & crews to help us fight Covid…. or put up helicopters to help us fight bushfires."

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Meanwhile, the ongoing saga of the Irish Sea border rumbled on, when it emerged Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots is to bring a paper to the Executive asking for approval to continue Brexit checks at Northern Ireland's ports. This raises the potential of the DUP vetoing the checks.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said Mr Poots would be acting unlawfully if he went down this path. For some reason I doubt this will ruffle the feathers of many in the DUP, given the party has already been found by the High Court to be undertaking an unlawful boycott of North/South meetings, to no real action taken.

Monday also saw MLAs recalled for education debate in the Chamber, during which things took a predictable orange versus green turn. Some DUP members hit out at the "pan-nationalist front" behind the recall motion, which was tabled by Sinn Fein and backed by the SDLP and Alliance.

Alliance's PR team used their video editing skills on social media to post a clip on social media of one these exchanges, followed by footage from Jurassic Park and on-screen text reminding NI citizens of the upcoming Assembly election, with the message: "Let's make the dinosaurs extinct again."

TUESDAY

Tuesday saw furore over another Downing Street lockdown party, after ITV published a leaked email from PM Boris Johnson's principal private secretary inviting staff to "socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden" in May 2020. The invitation encouraged people to "bring your own booze" and "make the most of the lovely weather" - at a time when lockdown rules in England banned large outdoor gatherings.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood was having none of it. “Boris Johnson is a con man. The oafish persona that he likes to project to the world is a pretence for a deeply untrustworthy and cynical politician who believes that the rules don’t apply to him or his inner circle," he said. "Boris Johnson has lost any authority or credibility he had. The best thing he can do now is resign.”

Over at Stormont, issues were raised over the Department for Communities £2m emergency winter fuel payment scheme, after it emerged the scheme has been capped at 330 payments daily to prevent it from becoming overwhelmed. Given there are between 200,00 and 300,000 NI citizens living in fuel poverty, this is not ideal.

Elsewhere, DUP MLA Jim Wells said his party should not go into government with Sinn Fein if the republican party comes out on top at May's Assembly election and takes the First Minister seat. Both the First Minister and deputy First Minister have the exact same powers and status, the difference being in name only.

Mr Wells said Sinn Fein holding both the First Minister post and potentially the position of Taoiseach in the Republic would be a source of “huge political kudos”. So much for the 'Democratic' Unionist Party, then.

WEDNESDAY

Over in Westminster there were angry scenes on Tuesday when PM Boris Johnson appeared before the Commons to apologise for attending the aforementioned Downing Street garden party. I say 'apology', he didn't apologise for his attendance, but for how it was "perceived", ridiculously stating he thought it was a work event... despite the invitation to the garden bash stipulating invitees bring their own booze.

Even the DUP's Sammy Wilson - who is not known to be the biggest cheerleader of Covid restrictions - said prior to BoJo's Commons appearance that he should "come clean" over the lockdown party.

"As one senior MP said to me yesterday, look the prime minister, as it's not the first allegations of parties, he must know the full extent of what happened in Downing Street over the lockdown period," he told the BBC.

"Rather than to allow this drip-feed of information to come out that something happened on the 20th May and another one happened some other time - he should come clean.

"He must make it quite clear these things happen, they shouldn't have happened, what was his involvement in it was and to get this story killed so you don't have every week some new revelation. People will then make a judgement on the basis of that situation and his honesty about this what his future should be."

Meanwhile, Stormont's Economy Department was accused of "going silent" over issues with its £100 high street voucher scheme, with MLAs saying they had been ignored by the department when asking questions about those who lost out on getting their voucher.

Applications to the scheme opened on September 27 and closed on January 7, however to date scores of people have not even received their cards, while others couldn't use them due to a range of issues.

"Some people may have just simply given up and decided that they're not going to pursue this any longer," Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson said.

Over in the Committee for the Executive Office, independent MLA Trevor Lunn had a bit of a Freudian slip when talking about Brexit and George Eustice, the UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Mr Lunn referred to a "George Useless", before correcting himself. "Sorry, did I say 'useless'? I meant 'Eustice'. I'm sure he's a lovely guy," he said.

THURSDAY

On Thursday, there were some heated discussions over the loss of EU funding for Stormont's Economy Department. It emerged on previously that more than £100m in core funding previously derived from EU structural funds over the next three years has been lost due to Brexit. This more than the £45m cash increase over three years granted by the Department of Finance under its proposed budget allocations.

During the Nolan Show on Thursday, TUV leader Jim Allister and the SDLP's Matthew O'Toole clashed over the issue. Mr Allister said the shortfall would "eventually" be balanced out by the UK's Shared Prosperity Fund, which is supposed to make up for the loss of EU funding. He also pointed to planned cuts to departments by Finance Minister Conor Murphy, as if that made other cuts acceptable.

Mr O'Toole said this reasoning "would make a Jesuit blanche" and is "nuts".

"It's completely bizarre. It's like saying, if you get a pay cut, but also lose some other income - it doesn't matter about the other income you've lost because you're getting a pay cut anyway," he said.

Last month saw Stormont's energy strategy published, setting out a 2050 decarbonisation target, but on Thursday UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt raised concerns regarding the apparent lack of a associated budget for the strategy.

During a meeting of the Economy, officials were only able to identify £10m in funding earmarked for programmes included in the strategy, while the actual strategy itself states £761m is needed this financial year for capital expenditure on energy transition. I'm no mathematician, but those figures are not even close.

FRIDAY

Friday saw UUP leader Doug Beattie take aim at Northern Ireland's education system, branding the lack of integration between Protestants and Catholics "educational apartheid".

“Northern Ireland has been blighted by division and yet we do not take the brave steps to try to deal with that division. The Ulster Unionist Party believes that our children should go from the playground to the classroom together, and from the classroom to the workplace together," he said.

“We need to end educational apartheid which is taking place here. We need our children to get to know each-other from their early years. We need a single education system in Northern Ireland that allows them to do that."

The DUP issued another statement on the Northern Ireland Protocol on Friday, listing seven reasons why the Irish sea border must go. Where have we heard this before? Oh yes, in July of last year DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP set out a series of “seven tests” for any new arrangements the UK Government would announce regarding the protocol. Seems this tactic isn’t working, perhaps Sir Jeffrey will try a list of eight next time.


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